EGYPT has just outlawed freedom of the press, a fact few American newspapers have deemed worth reporting despite the massive US aid received by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
A law recently adopted by the Egyptian parliament and signed by Mr. Mubarak criminalizes any criticism of the government by the Egyptian newspapers. Already, the government controls radio and television, the major sources of news in a country with a 45 percent literacy rate.
The new law forbids the dissemination of any information "harmful to the state, public officials, or the economy." Journalists who violate this law are subject to either a $3,000 fine or five years in prison, according to the judge's discretion.
This effectively puts a news blackout on conflicts between Islamists and the government, since such reports portray the country as unstable and consequently harm the economy. The law also prohibits criticism of public officials, thus making it impossible to investigate corruption cases. In protest, seven opposition newspapers, covering the spectrum of Egyptian politics, stopped printing for one day.
This law is a last-ditch effort to protect the government's already tarnished image. Egyptians were outraged when they learned that government corruption contributed to the deaths of their loved ones during the 1992 earthquake in Cairo. Journalists pointed to an unholy alliance between dishonest contractors and corrupt officials in the ministry of housing as the main reason so many new buildings collapsed.
The opposition newspaper al-Sha'ab charged government officials were bribed to ignore safety standards. Some contractors, such as Egyptian billionaire Fawzi al-Sayed of Nasser City, have close connections with high officials in Mubarak's government, according to a Jan. 21, 1994, al-Sha'ab report.
Recently, Mubarak was reportedly outraged by a column Jim Hoagland wrote for the Washington Post, which suggested that the sons of government officials in Egypt had lucrative business relations with the government of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Instead of ordering an investigation of such business ties, Mubarak sent a top aide to talk to Mr. Hoagland and other Americans who reported the story.
But such stories are hard to silence. Because of the information revolution, Egyptian newspapers get these reports from Western newspapers, translate them, and run them locally.
The new law, however, is designed to stop that, muffle the Egyptian media, and put critical journalists behind bars. Worse, the Egyptian public perceives these measures to have the tacit approval and financial support of the American government.
According to Magdi Ahmed Hussein, the editor of the opposition paper al-Sha'ab, "The new law has exceeded even those of Nasser's socialist state. Back then, no journalist was detained without trial. Under the new law, Mubarak's government can pick us up any time and keep us in jail as long as it wants."
Even without the new law, Egyptian journalists have been imprisoned for reports that the government deemed "harmful to its image." On April 4, journalist Abdul Satar abu-Hussein was imprisoned for three months for writing a story about Egyptian military officials using their influence to make money on arms sales from US companies. Ironically, his story was based on a report already published in the Wall Street Journal.
The current crackdown on dissent is ominous. The new law could be used to silence the opposition voices during next October's parliamentary elections. It will be very difficult for opposition parties to make their cases, since it is illegal to criticize the current government.
The ghost of the 1991 Algerian elections, in which Islamists won the elections on an anti-corruption platform, seems to haunt the Egyptian government. But government fear of an Islamist election victory seems unjustified. Judging from previous elections, Egyptian Islamists seem incapable of winning more than 30 percent of the vote. The Algerian scenario (collapse into civil war) is likely only if the government deprives large segments of Egyptian society of a political voice.
Paradoxically, this is precisely what the Mubarak regime is doing. By equating peaceful dissent and criticism of government corruption with open rebellion, the government is alienating the last vestige of its power base - educated, secular Egyptians who, until now, found Islamists more distasteful than the government.
Mubarak has already antagonized other powerful groups who had been content to work for change within the system. For example, the government arrested the leaders of the moderate, middle-class Islamic Brotherhood, an organization dating back to the 1920s and popular for its support of Islamic charities. The regime accused the brotherhood of being the political wing of the radical Islamic Group, an organization primarily of disaffected southern peasants. Earlier this year, Egyptian police opened fire on members of a lawyers' association who were protesting the death in detention of Abd al-Harith Madani, a lawyer who defended accused Islamic radicals.
The new anti-dissent law will reduce the government's constituency to those who benefit from the patronage system of the ruling National Democratic Party - old feudal families and military and ex-military officials. With this limited base, the government is becoming more and more vulnerable. While it appears to be trying to avoid an Algerian scenario, the Mubarak regime could bring about the very civil disorder it is trying to prevent.
The president seems unable to distinguish between his personal interests (preventing criticism of his family's and his cronies' financial improprieties) and the interest of Egypt (allowing the democratization that could prevent civil unrest).
Since Washington holds the purse strings, the United States can influence the Egyptian government to stop its onslaught against the rights of its citizens. Egypt is a key country in the Middle East. The US cannot afford to allow it to slide toward civil strife, further destabilizing the region.